Peter Capaldi

Spewing invective like an angry volcano, In The Loop’s Malcolm Tucker—played by Scottish actor Peter Capaldi—is a virtuoso of vulgarity, mowing down his enemies with curses as inventive as they are profane. Cowing government ministers and TV anchors alike, he acts as an unofficial member of the British prime minister’s cabinet, without portfolio or restraint. Initially conceived as the foil to Chris Langham’s lugubrious minister on the BBC series The Thick Of It, Malcolm moved to the fore when Langham was arrested and jailed for downloading child pornography, and has been the show’s signal character ever since. Previously best known in the U.S. for his role as an oil-company lawyer in 1983’s Local Hero, Capaldi has been a prolific actor on British television, guest-starring on everything from Doctor Who to The Vicar Of Dibley. He also directed the feature film Strictly Sinatra and an Oscar-winning short film, “Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life.” Capaldi rang up The A.V. Club in the midst of filming The Thick Of It’s second season.

The A.V. Club: How different was the approach to the film from the television show? It’s a different plot and substantially different cast. Was the technique the same?

Peter Capaldi: The technique remained pretty much identical, I think. It was on a slightly larger scale, so it had to be a little more nailed-down than perhaps a TV show is. The TV show is very nailed-down. But for the movie, you had to arrange something that looks like the United Nations; you had to arrange something that looks like the White House. So you’ve got to be fairly savvy when you use them. In that respect, the plot is pretty solid. But the actual words that we said were largely in flux, the way they are on the TV show. That gives people, sometimes, the impression that improvisation is the greater impetus. It’s not. It’s the writers. They’re working all the time. The script for this was like 300 pages of fabulous stuff. But everyone just accepts the fact that a lot of stuff is going to be cut, a lot of stuff is going to be changed, and they’re not proprietary about the material. A sea of good stuff.

AVC: In The Loop adds Americans into the mix, with a cast of actors, like James Gandolfini, who aren’t known for comedy or for working improvisationally. Was there a different feel in working with people from a different background or a different country?

PC: Well, we were certainly scared of them when we arrived in New York to rehearse for a week, because generally, our impression of American actors is that they’re a million times better than us. I think that’s slightly just because they’ve got American accents, which we’re still very impressed by. But the truth is, these guys were a bunch of very skilled, very clever, very witty, smart Americans. Once we got going, we didn’t have a problem with them at all, apart from the fact that we were hugely overimpressed by them. I thought they improvised incredibly well. The Americans just have a great sort of wit about them. They manage to balance the very terrible kind of wit and verbal slapstick as well, which in a way is what we are trying to do also. So I think it was a meeting of like-minded people. Even though we came from different cultures, we were all basically pursuing the same thing, and we could all recognize that. So there wasn’t really any problem. We all loved working together and wanted to do more. James was fantastic. Obviously, it’s a big thrill as soon he walks into the room. I’m a huge fan of The Sopranos, and suddenly, you find yourself going one-to-one with this guy who you’ve been watching for years, watching every flicker in his eye and every detail on his face. Of course, I had to stop myself being impressed by that. I had to become Malcolm, because I’m sort of the keeper of Malcolm’s ducks, so I couldn’t let Peter in. I had to let Malcolm go for him. Which was very fun. 

AVC: On The Thick Of It, Malcolm is a fire-breathing Scot in a world of posh Englishmen whom he can generally run right over, but the Americans in In The Loop give back as good as they get. How did it change things to have Malcolm taking on enemies in his weight class? 

PC: I think for me, that was a wonderful thing. Malcolm is largely the top dog on the TV show in terms of power. So to have people who were superior to him, and cleverer than him, and darker, was great, because then it gives you somewhere to go. So for me, that was a good development. I’d be happy to see more of that. It makes it more interesting. There’s only so long that you can go on screaming and shouting and swearing. There’s a sense of diminishing returns about that. But if you actually have to engage with somebody who’s superior to you and actually battle with them, struggle with them, I think it’s more interesting, and funnier for the audience. 

AVC: The most startling moment in the film is when Malcolm has to face up to the fact that David Rasche has outmaneuvered him. He looks utterly devastated, almost hollowed-out. It’s almost certainly the longest he’s even been on camera without speaking. 

PC: That’s great, too, because you plot it out in your head and realize, looking at the script, there’s got to be a moment when it’s over, when he’s just unable to deal with these forces. But also, we see the moment it clicks with him that there’s a possibility of a way out. I love the fact that he was driven to this, and I knew that it was going to happen in there. So I knew by the time we got into that room, we had to deconstruct him, really, because these forces are just too great for him. And David is fantastic and very powerful and very clever, an actor with a very light touch, and very scary. But it was great. I loved crushing him and then sort of bringing him back to life. It’s good to have him punched around. We’re doing a new series right now, and [writer-director] Armando [Iannucci] keeps telling me there’s someone coming in who’s going to be a major enemy of Malcolm’s, but he won’t tell me any more than that. We’ve already done five episodes, but he won’t tell me what’s going to happen. He’s bringing in some killer for Malcolm. Maybe he’ll kill Malcolm. 

AVC: Doubtful.

PC: I suggested that to him, but he never takes it up. I thought he’d have a heart attack or a stroke.

AVC: Is that how the show works? Is it a matter of staying in character that you don’t know what the arc of the story is going to be beforehand?

PC: Historically, the way this show has worked is, it’s never really had a season. The very first episode was just really money for a pilot, and we stretched that money to two episodes. It was just guys shouting at each other, so we were able to make that work. And the BBC liked that one, so they said, “Here’s some money, do another one.” So we’d done three. And they went out and everybody liked them, so they said, “Do another three.” So over a course of a year, we had done six. But no one had ever said at any point, “You’re going to do six episodes.” Each time we did it, it was a slightly different way of doing it. And then there were the problems with Chris [Langham], so that stopped everything, and we had to do specials, which again were done differently.

So this is the very first time we’ve done, as it were, a season. The way we’re doing it is, I guess, how we’d done it if things had gone smoothly. So you know what’s going to happen, but you never see the script until you sit down and do a table-read. They don’t send it to you beforehand. So you arrive and you read that script, and that’s like a week before you start shooting. So you read it and then you improvise the same script, and if it’s funny, the writers can put it in. Because they’re rewriting it all the time. And then that script will be completely rewritten as a consequence of the improvisations—and of the writers rewriting it anyway. When we start shooting a week later, you virtually have a whole new script. 

AVC: Did you anticipate the extent to which Malcolm would become the focal point for people’s admiration of the series?

PC: No. When we started, I’d know Armando had cast me and Chris Langham, and he knew he would have that dynamic, that there would be a central MP and a spin doctor. I guess just because of the way things have unfolded, people are very interested in him, or taken by him, or whatever. But the show works best when there’s an MP at the middle of it. I think Tom Hollander is brilliant in the film, because the MP carries the audience. We can all circle him and attack him and push him around, but he becomes the kind of moral core, because the audience would quite like the MP to do the right thing. He’s always buffeted by his own ego and by Malcolm and by the forces around him. I hadn’t anticipated Malcolm becoming this sort of thing that he’s become. But it’s very nice so far. 

AVC: Malcolm couldn’t be the central character. You’d have to humanize him too much.

PC: That’s right, that’s right. People often ask me about his private life. Who cares? There’s nothing there. Sometimes we’ve talked about it, but that’s not what the show is. The show’s not about a spin doctor. It’s about an MP. I have to admit when we first started, I slightly felt like we were behind the zeitgeist, in terms of spin doctors weren’t really that. I think we use the wrong terminology for them, really, whatever they are: advisors or something. And of course Malcolm, yes, he’s a press advisor, but he has power, or had power—almost the powers of chief of staff, without that being official. Almost like being a Rahm Emanuel, but without anyone admitting it. 

AVC: In one sense, it’s a show about politics, but almost nothing gets done, politically speaking. It’s much more about the political maneuvering and backstabbing and spinning than the actual business of governing a nation. It’s hard to say even what Malcolm does, in a way, let alone what anyone else’s job actually is.

PC: Well, I think what it does is, it’s like a slice of cake—or it’s the boiler room. Really, that’s what it is. You’ve got the TV show and then you’ve got the film—but the Department Of Social Affairs, which is where the TV show is set, is one of the least popular departments. It’s a sort of graveyard of ambition. The Department Of Dead Ambitions, it should be called. Malcolm has to visit there, because it’s part of his routine. Every day, there’s some piece of shit that comes from there that he has to deal with. My take on it is that he spends the rest of his day dealing with big stuff. So maybe they are kind of running things the rest of the day, but we just see, because that’s what the show concentrates on, this terrible little department that nobody wants.

AVC: One of the things that makes the film feel different in some ways, and substantially more frightening, is that these things actually have consequences.

PC: I would say—and I am very proud of this film, not because of my contribution, but because I know Armando, and I know the work that’s gone into it—I feel like this film shifted from the TV show. There was really an element of sadness and melancholy that crept into it that I thought, “God, that’s really special.” I love comedies like that. At the end, just before the credits start rolling, you just think, “Fuck. These people are just carrying on. This terrible thing has happened with these awful consequences, but they’re just getting on with it.” That’s probably what happened.

AVC: The movie almost doesn’t have an ending as such. There’s no resolution. No one gets what they deserve.

PC: It’s interesting to watch Armando develop, because he has different appetites that are being stimulated. Another filmmaker would perhaps have had a lovely little shot of Tom wandering off and packing his bags, but he didn’t. Armando just stayed with all this shit. But somehow it was still really sad. He just stayed with the new lot as they came in. So they’re going to be fucked. Or maybe they’re not going to be fucked. Who knows? But there’s no great grandstanding. 

AVC: Which is worse? Is it worse for them to be powerless, or for them to actually affect things? 

PC: Exactly. I was really quite taken with that shift in it toward the end. One of the problems with episodic television of any color is that everything has got to be okay at the end of the episode so it can start again next week. So the events that occur are rarely life-changing. But with film, you can say that this thing only happened once; this is a major thing that happened to these people. In a way, that’s what the movie was for Malcolm and these guys. It’ll be interesting to see whether he makes any reference to it in the new TV show, to this war and these past events.

AVC: He hasn’t yet in the five you’ve shot?

PC: He hasn’t so far, but we’re kind of—things are pretty volatile politically here at the moment, so we’re kind of pedaling as fast as we can to keep up with that. There’s going to be a general election here, so I think we’re sort of on a hair trigger, really, waiting. I suspect that will be the end for us, because [the party in charge] will change, and I don’t think it will be Labour. It’ll be over for us guys, unless he comes up with some clever way. I think in opposition, there’s much less potential for fun. They’re actually so certain they’ll be in power, we’ve done an episode where they come to check out the department because they’ll be there.

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AVC: So having done the film, has that changed anything in the direction of the show? Is there a different feel? Is Chris Addison back to being Olly and not Toby?

PC: Chris has gone back to being Olly again, and he’s fantastic. I’m astonished by him, and I keep saying it to him, and he doesn’t get it. He’s a stand-up comic, but his ability to act is extraordinary, to be so natural, I’ve taken 25 years just getting to that level. And then of course I end up with this broad, operatic performance as Malcolm. I think it has changed things. Armando says he wants it to be like it was at the start, in the sense that it’s much more stripped-down. It’s much more about these four or five characters. There are fewer other characters coming in, so it’s much more dynamic. And of course we have a new minister who is a woman, played by Rebecca Front, who’s fantastic. Suddenly Malcolm has to make sure her hair is okay and that she’s dressed properly. He’s older and he’s more emotional, I think, and he’s aware of his power slipping. That’s what I think is happening, without going into too much detail. There’s a real sense, gradually, every week, every episode, another piece of power is stripped away. So I don’t know where we’re going. Everyone else is turning on him now as well, because they think he’s going to be powerless. They want to get their own back.

AVC: Needless to say, he hasn’t made a lot of friends over the years.

PC: I think they’re unwise to write him off. 

AVC: It’s funny to compare this role to your role in Local Hero, which is still what Americans are most likely to recognize you from. It could not be more diametrically opposed. Your character in Local Hero is so sweet and shy, with those wonderfully floppy arms. 

PC: The irony is, we were in Washington shooting Malcolm running about, and I said to Armando, “Why do you always get me to run about?” Get me to run toward the White House, to run to Capitol Hill, to run down this corridor. And he says, “Because you’ve just got a funny run.” Which is exactly what was going on there 25 years ago in Local Hero. Which is just a stupid run. It’s just me. I’m just physically stupid. So it’s the same body language. But yeah, it was a great film. I was really surprised to find how popular it was, particularly with Americans. If I’d known, I would have come over there straight away. I’m surprised I get noticed, and not just in New York and Los Angeles, for that film. The people who stop me are regular people, not people in the business. I think if people like it, they like it very deeply. It has a very warm feeling about it. If you’re keen on it, then it means something to you in some special way. It’s a delight to be in something like that. And of course there was Peter Riegert, who ended up in The Sopranos, being James Gandolfini’s lawyer. And Burt Lancaster as well. I’m so lucky to have worked with Burt Lancaster, who I remember was one of the first people I’d heard swearing in a really interesting way. 

AVC: In Sweet Smell Of Success?

PC: No, I mean on the set. Local Hero. I never heard someone use language like that. He said to me, “You’ve got great instinct, kid, great instinct. Can’t understand a fucking word you say, but your instinct’s terrific.” And I said to him, “How’s your hotel?” And he said, “Hotel? Hotel is wonderful. But the woman who runs it is a cunt.” I’d just never heard language used that way. It was great.

AVC: It’s a great performance, especially because it exposes a side of him that was never fully tapped. He was such a physically imposing man that that it dictated a lot of the parts he played. 

PC: I think that’s true, and I think what he showed in the film was an astonishing lightness of touch. The older I get, the more I think lightness of touch is an incredibly difficult thing to do. To understand it is key, particularly to make comedy work. What he does with that role is that he creates this remarkably pompous character. He is this man who thinks he looks fantastic, because he’s Burt Lancaster, but he’s actually rather pompous. Not everybody can do that. But then when you compare that with all the other stuff he can do, with that kind of darkness in Sweet Smell Of Success, it’s a great range. Atlantic City is very good. I love that scene when he sees himself on TV, sees he’s wanted. Except he’s never been wanted before, quite literally. He was lovely, and I think he had a good time. So he was very lighthearted throughout the whole thing. 

AVC: You also directed a short film called “Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life,” which won an Oscar in 1994. How did you end up directing that?

PC: I was just interested in directing. So I just kept having a go at trying to write little scripts and get things together, and my wife just had a slip of the tongue and said, “Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life” when she meant to say “Frank Capra’s.” There it is right there. That’s a gag that we could make into something. 

AVC: So you were off to the races after that?

PC: I knew Richard E. Grant, and I went to him and said “Would you like to [play Kafka in the film]?” and he said yeah, and then suddenly I had all these people who were happy to come along. We got a little bit of money from Scottish Screen to pay for it. I think it was about 30 grand. But I got so many favors because I knew people in the business. I was in a remarkably good position. I got so many favors from people. I got the Monty Python technical people.

AVC: Hazel Pethig did the costumes. 

PC: Yes, Hazel Pethig, who had done all the Monty Python TV shows. Key figure. There’s that little bit at the end where there’s a sort of insect head singing, which I wanted to do in a Georges Méliès kind of way. I took a ride to all these various effects houses, at Shepperton Studios and whatever, and said, “Can you do it?” They said “We can do that,” but that it would cost like a grand and a half. I didn’t have a grand and a half to do it. Hazel said, “I’ll get you someone who can do it.” She got me this lady called Val Charlton, who did the miniature sculptures for Time Bandits and Brazil and stuff like that. She said, “Oh, I’ll do it, but it’ll be quite expensive.” I asked how much and she said, “£150.” I said, “Let’s do it. That’s great!” They just had an ethos, a creativity about them that I felt was very interesting, and one could see it in the Python movies. That’s where they’d grown up, as it were. That’s what they did. They were interested in being arty, trying to make things look good, and in literally hand-making effects. I love people where, at the end of the day, they’ll pick up a paintbrush and paint clouds. They can physically make things. I was surrounded by people like that, so that’s how we managed to make it look so good on such a small budget. 

AVC: What do you remember about winning the Oscar?

PC: It was Scottish Screen who put it in for it, and I was amazed to go there and win it. It was fantastic getting up on the stage there and looking down. I thought, “That guy looks like Steve Martin, and that guy’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger.” But it was Steve Martin, and it was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then they have this terrible kind of conveyor belt backstage—literally—where they take you to this big hangar where the world’s press are gathered, and they make you stand on a stage, and they introduce you. I said, “Please don’t put me there, because nobody is going to want to talk to me.” They said, “No, you’ve got to go up there.” So I had to go up in front of the world’s press, and she said, “Peter Capaldi just won an Oscar for “Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life.” Are there any questions?” And it’s just, like, tumbleweeds. Not even any British press. Not even the Edinburgh Chronicle or anything like that. Nobody wanted to talk to me. I thought, “That’s an omen.”

AVC: You had a sort of star-crossed romance with Miramax after that.

PC: I had a script I was trying to sell, trying to get made, and they bought it. Which was great, but then I spent a year with them working on it, and they decided not to do it. They decided while I was in the air. I’d been back and forth with them, and they said “Yes, it’s going to happen,” and I flew to New York thinking we were going to start casting. The driver took me down to Tribeca and he said, “Shall I wait for you?” I said, “No, I think we’ll probably go out, have champagne and that.” And I gave him a big tip, and went in and got sacked, more or less. And then they said, “Your car is still here.” I was so shocked, I was just sort of laughing, and the driver asked me what happened, and I explained to him. As I left the car when he dropped me off, he gave me the tip back. That was sweet. I gave it back, but I thought that was so kind. I was thinking “Jesus, I’ve got no money, I’ve got nothing, I’ve got no future. It’s all over.” And he gave me the tip back. His name was Ralph. Thank you, Ralph, for that.

AVC: More recently, you directed three episodes of the bleak hospital satire Getting On, starring Joanna Scanlan, who plays Terri on The Thick Of It, as well as Jo Brand and Vicki Pepperdine. How is that doing? 

PC: It went out last night. They just told us it got the biggest audience for a comedy that BBC4 has ever had. So we’re somewhat shocked again, because again, it’s very small and cheap. Clearly, I’ve used Armando’s techniques there. Everything I do is something I’ve learned from Armando, working with two cameras the way he does. But really, it’s the girls: They wrote it and put it together and asked me at the last minute to come in. I think they needed somebody who understood improvising and comedy and all that stuff, because it’s totally different from, for instance, my Kafka movie, which is much more visually thought-through. But I really enjoyed, it and it’s done really well. I’m thrilled. Again, I can say that because it’s theirs; it’s their project. It’s nice for me to have a go at directing again, so it was good. 

AVC: Are you going to be doing any more of that in the near future?

PC: I don’t know how the BBC works with that. There are only two episodes to go out, and then I don’t know. I don’t know what they wait for. The problem is they have to be written. You can’t just go, “Let’s do them next week.” But it’s done very well. They’re very pleased with it. I was very pleased with it. It cost them nothing at all, it’s so cheap to make those kind of programs.

AVC: In The Loop was very well received at Sundance. It’ll be interesting to see how it does once regular people start to see it.

PC: Do you think regular people will get it?

AVC: You know the famous quote from George S. Kaufman about how satire is what closes Saturday night? There’s always that worry. In Hollywood terms, there’s no one likeable in the movie. But the people who love it are really going to love it.

PC: I think, like the TV show, it’s got its own constituency. I don’t want to expect anything more than that. But I had a big surprise, in that it did really well here. It seemed to go beyond what people had expected. We thought, “Well, people who watch the TV show, who are about 400 people, will watch this, get into it.” But actually, something happened, and there seemed to be an appetite for intelligent black comedy. We’ve been sort of stunned. An awful lot of people went to see it. It’s just nice to know it’s going to be in America, because guys like us have been infused with so much American comedy, and it’s sort of part of us, so it’s nice to have something going the other way, and we’ll hope it does something.